Entry #031: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 (Johannesburg, South Africa)

I wish I had a scarf I could throw over my shoulder, because if there was ever an appropriate time to say "And that's the end of that chapter," this is it. Yes, after eight legitimately amazing weeks, I am no longer doing the Askari Wilderness Conservation Program. Final thoughts in the entry proper, but right now I'm back with Lynn, my Johannesburg CounchSurfing host, and tomorrow I'll be hopping on a train to go to Cape Town. Lemme tell ya, it never ends. Well, not until April.

I'll kind of blast through what happened over the weekend. We did two drives on Saturday, both of which felt quite bittersweet, as we knew they would be our last. The first was a research route, a fairly busy one in terms of finding herbivores (we saw no less than a hundred impala), though nothing particularly amazing. The second drive was even more basic - a sable breeding camp count (with bonus tick spray refilling). It was particularly bittersweet for me, as it was the last time I'd be opening the gates for all of us (something that was kind of, like, my job for the whole month). So, I made the most of it, even racing the Game Viewer at certain points (I lost; you've beaten me, Land Rover!). And then, getting back to the house, we drive slowly into the car port, just to have it last a bit longer.

Having finished with our final non-chore duties, and with a few hours before the end-of-the-month party was to start, I spent some time going filtering my last two weeks of photos, and then went to check on the skull of Tiberius. After examining the thing and giving it some thought, I determined that I wouldn't be shipping Tiberius back home. At least, not yet. The skull itself is a gorgeous specimen, and it was 98% cleaner than it was before we started the boil. (It hardly even had much of a noticeable smell anymore.) But the problem is, 98% is not good enough. There was still some...let's call them "organic elements" still left here and there, which is not something I want to ship home. Insects should probably pick clean the last remaining bits within a couple weeks, at which point it could be bleached and ready to go, but my timeline was just too short to take that into account. So, rather than sending home a not-perfectly-clean skull, I decided to call it a day. I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end, it doesn't even matter. Though I did speak with Joe about the matter, and it seems like them shipping it to me at a later date is a considerable option. I mean, I'm in no rush - I'm not going to see it until next April anyway. So we'll see where that goes; you may not have heard the last of Tiberius the Impala.

Later on in the evening, the braai was started up, and it was time for the end-of-the-month party. It featured the same sort of stuff we had last month - the Merit/Demerit shot drinking ceremony (which got a little wacky, as there were so many merits that we ran out of the green merit liquor, and ended up needed to disregard some of my "Merit Fairy" additions to the board. I did end up taking a single shot for myself - much like last month - which I gave to myself for being the winner of our two-week Murder game. We also got our certificates of completion, which listed all the various activities we were part of. Mine was a bit longer than everyone else's, but the best part is that one of the activities just said, "Wilderness". Then, after a delicious collection of meats (including one of Garth's steaks, which it turns out I wasn't supposed to eat. Whoops!), it was time for dancing!......or, rather, it was time for sitting around the fire talking. At least, half of the group did that, while the other half played a game of keep-the-soccer-ball-in-the-air. Seeing as I'm pretty good at talking and pretty terrible at soccer, I opted for the former. But yeah, despite me mentioning dancing, no efforts were made to get that set up. I attribute this, at least in part, to the fact that the rest of the Pidwa staff that were there (including Garth, the party animal) were actually going out to a different party. So for hours, we just sat around talking. And I don't even mind talking - I rather like it in fact. But I'd talked up such a big dancing game that I was feeling a bit restless.

Finally, at midnight - midnight - I finally took the initiative and cleared out the living room. Even then, it took some time for people to get in, but we finally got it started. I found it amusing that everyone kept comparing my dancing to Irish dance, though I think that was mostly because the Irish girl tried some Irish step dancing, which turned out quite uncoordinated. But still, we got some good music, and I had some good opportunities to dance. But, man oh man, I've found there's nothing that annoys me more than when people tell me to dance when I sit down for a song (which the American girl would not stop doing). It's like, if a song inspires me to dance, I dance. If it doesn't inspire me to dance, I don't. Simple as that. It's not like I'm being antisocial by skipping a song or two. Anyway, as the night progressed, we got more people coming in, including Joe, the Czech boy, and the American boy. They apparently had been drinking whiskey at Joe's house, and you could tell, mainly because the Czech boy was dancing like I dance, but he wasn't trying to. They both ended up clonking out by, like, 1am or something, the first real victims of the night (the Taiwanese girl had to go lay down before dinner after a couple drinks, but she eventually got back into it). The dancing continued until, maybe, 2:30, and then a couple of folks stayed up an additional hour. So while, technically, the party lasted longer than last month's, there was less than half the dancing involved. In retrospect, this was probably better for my feet, because they only felt sore for two days afterward, rather than five.

The next morning, despite being the last person to go to bed, I ended up the first person to wake up. And unlike everyone else, I felt great. That's why I unironically love my sobriety - I have all the fun of the night before, and none of the problems of the morning after. I had a nice breakfast, and then began to put up my last two weeks of photos on Facebook (which I won't link to here, for reasons that are explained when you see the album, but check it out if you're my friend). This, as is often the case, occupied a good few hours (what can I say - I like to give comprehensive descriptions). I took a couple quick breaks. The first was to say goodbye to Katie, Joe, and the London girl, all of which were leaving back to England. It was when I was opening the gate for them to drive out that it really sunk in that the program was over. Not that I was emotionally wrecked - that's for the dogs. Literally, though, Cooper and Rafiki looked miserable as Katie and Joe left. They spent the rest of the day moping around, looking like two sad dudes. That was the most depressing part for all of us. The second break was to make a late lunch for everyone, which was the strangest "omelette" I'd ever seen (and, being about an inch-point-five thick, was really more like a quiche). Tasted fine, though, so at least I didn't have the last meal I cooked here be something people spat out.

Later on, after I was finished uploading all the photos, it was time to pack. And by "pack", I mean "separate my clothes into a pile that would be left and a pile that would be taken". For the most part, all the clothes that I bought in South Africa would stay here, to be used for whatever purpose. I did hold onto my weekend shirt and my pajama pants, thinking those may come in handy, and they don't take up much room. But getting everything back into the bags felt so weird at this point, and I'll get to that in a second. Still, it all fit just like it should have. I then heard that Kevin was outside, so I went out to say a safety goodbye to him (in case he didn't show up Monday). I also filmed myself jogging (well, power-walking) with him, so that was a good sendoff to our relationship, because even if I came back, he is most likely going to be released within the next year or so.

And that's almost as good a segue as I can get to talk about my overall thoughts on Askari (besides, you don't want to hear about my dinner.........it was chicken satay with a fruit parfait for desert). What to say about the place I've spent the last two months? Actually, this really makes me wish I had a copy of what I wrote in my testimonial page on our survey form. Basically, I loved it. As you can probably have gathered. Despite any individual ups and downs, it was an amazing program, and I am very glad I chose to be a part of it. I'm specifically pleased that I decided to do it for two months. I think two months is the right amount of time to do it. It's long enough that you feel you've seen it all, without growing bored of anything. And I really do think I got something out of both months. July was, I think, better in terms of overall animal sightings, but August was better in terms of activities we did. And by being there two months, I had the chance to meet a wider variety of people (and be "the veteran" to half of them), which was really beneficial. And overall, I just had a lot of good experiences. Like I said on pretty much my first entry on the subject, it's a big kids' summer camp. It shows you what it's really like to be a game ranger. Do I want to become a game ranger now? No, not really. But I'm 114% glad that I was able to do all the things I did, and that's why I always volunteered for them. And then there's Katie and Joe, who run this program like a well-oiled machine, but are still great people to boot.

If, during your reading of my blog entries or looking at of my pictures, you thought that maybe you want to do Askari yourself, I highly encourage you to do so! Do the research, look up their website, and maybe consider it. If you do join, be sure to mention ol' Andrew - I'd get a 10% commission. Cha-cha-cha-ching! But seriously, even if I didn't get a dime (and until Monday, I didn't think I would), I would recommend the hell out of the program.

But there's another side to this, as well. Pidwa was my home for two months. I stayed in this one place longer than I'll stay in any other place on my entire trip. In some regards, it was a break from my traveling. I was able to do things like I was back at home. But now it's back to the normal round-the-world routine of finding out how to going on buses and planes and trains and finding my way around new cities and meeting new people that I leave within days. It's almost like I'm starting a second round-the-world trip. Like I'm leaving home again. Well, except when leaving this home, I'm significantly tanner than when I began. Also, stronger arms and slightly fatter (I have no idea how much or little, but I swear I must have gained something while at Askari). Oh, and with a kinda cool scar on my face. Not quite the one I was going for, but it'll do.

So, thanks very much Askari! It's been real! I'll miss your animals, your sense of fraternity, and the nightly conversations about American English versus British English!

Anyway, the next morning, I had to wake up earlier than I was originally hoping to, because when I checked my flight, I realized that I was on an earlier one than expected, so I actually had to leave with the first group. I cooked the remainder of my eggs, took my bag out, and was ready to go. I went out to say goodbye to Kevin, but as I had somewhat suspected, he was nowhere to be seen (which made me happy I already did so the day before). I then said goodbye to my favorite owl, Quadric (who had nowhere to go) and the dogs (who were still in a funk). And then, before jumping in the truck that would take us to the airport, said a tentative goodbye to all the other volunteers (tentative because we planned to all meet up at the Johannesburg airport while we waited for their transfers and I waited for Lynn to be done with work). We then set off, and after a little more than an hour - a length of time that made me really glad I went with the early group - we got at the airport. After doing some reading in the lounge, we walked through the most lax airport security ever, got on the plane, and within an hour were in Johannesburg.

We (the American couple and I) walked to the Wimpy in the airport (which, despite the name and the fact that it sells hamburgers, has nothing to do with the Popeye character. It's kind of like a Denny's). We had all kind of agreed that this would be our central meeting point in the airport, not because it's any good - it isn't - but because it's probably the easiest place in the entire airport to find, and we all knew it was there. So, we sat down, ordered some mediocre food (the waiter seemed really perplexed when I ordered a chicken sandwich lettuce-wrapped), and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Oh, we talked, too. We did plenty of talking. But as time kept passing, it seemed more and more likely that the rest of the group had a delayed flight. I wouldn't have minded, except that I told Lynn I'd meet her at 4pm. I tried holding out as long as I could, hoping to say a final, final goodbye, but by 3:45, I figured I needed to leave. I said my goodbyes to the American couple, and made my way to the Gautrain station, worried that the group would show up literally minutes after I left (this concern proved to be unfounded, as they were delayed another hour at least after that).

I took the train to the Sandton station, and made my way up to Lynn's office. She greeted me with the same warmth she showed me last time, and then we headed home. She was telling me that she's hardly had a full house since I left; her eldest son was currently gone to Europe, and at least one kid has been out of the house for some reason or another almost constantly. She also mentioned that she had one other CouchSurfer since I left, which was an Israeli guy who'd been traveling for at least a year, and was apparently over it. I guess he was sick of traveling and being a tourist, and just wanted to go home and be productive again. This really got me thinking about what my mindset will be by the time I'm at the end of my trip. Who can say? In any case, we're not there yet. Once arriving at Lynn's house, I took a quick nap, got some stuff settled, showed pictures from my time at Askari, had a nice homemade stir-fry dinner (during which I was debating with their clever, clever young daughter the merits of spiciness), and then spent most of the rest of the evening playing some games.

I let myself sleep in today. Well, as much I could, having gotten so used to waking up at 6:30 nearly every morning. But by the time I got out of my room, everyone was gone to work and school, leaving me with just the house cleaning lady. I made myself some breakfast, and then looked at what I wanted to do today. This week was actually the "Joburg City Festival", which had a number of different activities going on each day. The weekday activities weren't all that interesting (most were just restaurant specials), but I figured I'd give it a shot to eat up some time. I downloaded the schedule to my phone, and headed out. I would have to walk to a bus stop, take the bus to the train station, take a train to another station, and then grab a tuk-tuk from there. It was all going well until I was already out, and saw that the schedule I had downloaded was for Monday, meaning it was completely inaccurate. I decided to change plans, and just go for an extended walk. It was a beautiful day anyway, so I walked a good couple miles. I did get a couple stares for being a white person not in a car, but I never felt threatened (this wasn't even close to the city center). On my way back, I stopped at the nearby Pick-n-Pay, and got a tin of mixed vegetables, a tin of roast potatoes, and a whole chicken - a whole chicken - for a grand total of $6.50.

I walked back to the house for a satisfying lunch, and saw a delivery was being made. At first I couldn't realize what it was, but then I remembered Lynn mentioning that she wanted to start a new painting, one which needed a 15-foot wide canvas. I helped the delivery guy get the canvas into the house, and then had my lunch, saving a good amount of chicken for tomorrow. I then relaxed for most of the rest of the day, trying to firm up some plans for Cape Town, including where I'm going to stay (and I think I may have that at this point, but we'll see how everything goes). Later on, after Lynn got home, we took the dogs for a walk near the local river, and had a nice conversation while we were at it. We then got home, had dinner, and then I helped Terry (Lynn's husband) position and hang her enormous canvas on the wall so that she could begin her initial sketches, which she figured out by taking a reference image, and using a projector to display them on the canvas for proper proportions. (She's doing a line of elephants, by the way.)

And that's really been it. I'll be heading out for the train station tomorrow (likely around 10am), and then I'll be on my way to Cape Town, which is literally the one place that everyone I've ever met seems to agree on is one of the greatest places to ever be. So hopefully it'll be some fun! I'll see you there!

...Actually, I won't. I'l just...I'll just write another blog entry from there.

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